Christian vs. Saved (Roger Olson)

I found this most interesting post at Roger Olson’s site, and I’d like to discuss it here:

Would you distinguish “Christian” vs. “saved”? (Now this is not about inclusivism and universalism but about those who believe in orthodoxy and those who don’t, and if they are not orthodox then their beliefs are not Christian … but is orthodoxy denied a loss of salvation?) But this raises two questions: Can a person be Christian [in theology] but not saved? Can a person not be Christian [in theology] but still be saved?

According to the brochure [Roger Olson is talking about an evangelist], sent out to thousands of people, including many pastors, Jesus is not God and should not be worshiped as God.  And there is no Trinity.  Only the Father is God and should be worshiped.  This is a new belief the evangelist has come to hold; he apparently grew up in and for a long time belonged to a Oneness Pentecostal church.  Of course, he does not belong to it anymore.

As Christian theologian, I sometimes find myself needing to answer the question “Is this person a Christian?” I’ve been asked that about Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich (in the past tense, of course) and about Hans Kung. A former colleague and I used to argue about whether Kung is a Christian or not and I insisted on keeping the decision focused on his Christology.

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the evangelist of the brochure is not a Christian.

Having said that, I must immediately go on to explain that my claim he is not a Christian is NOT to say he is not saved. Whether a person is saved or not is entirely God’s business and not mine or any person’s (other than God’s).

This is why the distinction between “Christian” and “saved” is so important.  And I don’t just mean it in the sense of “Christian” as a nominal term to designate membership in a Christian church.  Almost everyone recognizes the distinction between “saved” and “Christian” when the latter term is used that way.  (Everyone has heard and agrees with the old adage that “Just because something’s in the garage doesn’t make it a car!”)…

So what makes a person a Christian? What makes a person saved? As I said, the latter is God’s business but he has given us some guidelines in his Word. I believe anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, risen from the dead, and puts his or her trust in him for their salvation, and who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, is saved. (I don’t insist that a person call his or her spiritual life a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” That’s what I’m calling a life of devotion to Jesus Christ.)

Having said that, I personally withdraw from making decisions about whether a person is saved or not; that’s God’s business and between the individual and God.

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  • Yes to both. You can be a saved heretic, or an unsaved orthodox. Orthodoxy is a work, and we’re saved by grace.

    Not to say that every heretic will be saved. Orthodoxy is a fruit of salvation; if we trust the Spirit to lead us to the truth, we ought to see some truth at some point. But in the meanwhile, and sometimes for understandable reasons, we might unintentionally, unknowingly spout off some heresy. Goodness knows I did. My excuse is that I didn’t know any better, and God, knowing this, was gracious to me: Now, thanks to His patience, I do know better. (Though I won’t claim perfection. I’m not so arrogant.)

  • Paul W

    I would not identify a person as a Christian because of the worldview/theology they embrace but by the community with which they belong. Christians, as I understand it, are given their definition and identity as Christians by the relationship they have to Christ’s body i.e., the Church.

    Thus, whether someone is a Christian or not is an ecclesiastical question to be answered by a church. It is not one to be answered individually by you or by me. And whether God saves someone or not, I guess, is for him to determine.

    I wonder if I’ve missed the intention or import of the question though.

  • Stephen W

    Does “being a Christian” even matter?

  • Fred

    Stephen W

    Apparently it does to us. When it comes to the Bible though, “knowing God” seems to matter most. I wonder how that relates to our “being saved” or being Christian.

    John 17:3; Jeremiah 22:16 for starters.

  • Andy W.

    I like the way the EO discuss heterodoxy. They use the idea of missing or lacking the “fullness of the faith”. I think this is a good way to look at this.

  • It’s an interesting question. There are movements within some of the monotheistic religions (and, I understand, among some otherwise polytheistic groups), where people are embracing Jesus as Lord and saviour, believing that He died and rose again, even contrary to certain tenants in their own religion. They choose not to call themselves “Christian”, but identify themselves by the religious community of their birth. However, they’ve rejected those tenants that would prevent them from believing in Jesus in that way. Some even suffer persecution, but not as much as if they were to embrace the “Christian” culture. Because of potential opposition, those who have contact with them won’t even tell you what countries they live in (and for the same reason I won’t even say which religions). It’s a movement that has begun to take root in many parts of the world, sometimes even where there’s no one doing any evangelism. Some were inspired to faith by dreams or supernatural experiences. They’ve definitely been saved, and transformed, but, to me, this has changed the definition of the term “Christian”.

  • John W Frye

    This is an aside. I take it, then, that Roger Olson would avoid the tactic of giving someone “the assurance of salvation.” I’ve come to believe that tactic is one of the most arrogant maneuvers of fundamentalism/USAmerican evangelicalism because, based only upon someone’s public or verbalized expression of faith, they are assured 100% on the spot that they are going to heaven when they die. But what if the person “prayed the prayer” just to get the evangelist out of his/her life? We don’t know the person’s heart (as Olson reiterates). Then, later when said convert goes apostate, we are told “they really did mean it when they prayed.” Then why were they given “the assurance of salvation”? It makes no sense IMO. I believe in conditional assurance sourced in the Holy Spirit Who witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God. A persistently disobedient ‘believer’ should feel deep conviction, not assurance.

  • John W Frye

    Comment #7 should read, “…they really didn’t mean it when they prayed…”

  • While I have historically defined Christian a bit differently than this article (in a nutshell, I’d have made “Christian” less stringent than “saved” rather than more so), I definitely agree with the article’s essential point (and would have used something like “orthodox”–little o– or “traditional” where he says “Christian” here) in that the rightness of our belief does not save us (if it were so, we would all be without hope, it seems to me).

    That said, I would be willing to engage a discussion about whether or not some minimum threshold of “orthodox” belief were required, say a belief in Christ’s divinity, to use the example we’re given).

  • dopderbeck

    I agree with Olson but not completely. This gets us back to the meaning of “saved.” I think what Olson means is, “if someone believes or doesn’t believe X proposition, will they have a part in Christ’s eschatological Kingdom?” Or more crudely put, “will such a person go to heaven?”

    To this extent, I entirely agree with Olson: that sort of final judgment is for God alone.

    At the same time, there is plenty of fair warning in scripture and in the Tradition that to deny the claims of Christ leads to disaster. So, while I am not fit to make the kind of final judgment only God can make, I can pass along the serious warning that excluding one’s self from Christ is a dire choice.

    And — if “saved” implies participation in the in-breaking of Christ’s Kingdom now, then there is a sense in which we can say that someone who presently denies Christ is not “saved” — or better, not participating in God’s salvation in Christ. If a person excludes himself from the table fellowship Christ now offers in the body of the Church, and passes on the Eucharistic elements and the practices of worship that unite us together with Christ, then that person is passing on the blessings of salvation right now. And again, this can establish and represent a pattern that is recapitulated in the eschaton.

    So — yes and no, I guess. I love Olson, but sometimes he seems too stuck in a “who will go to heaven” revivalist sort of soteriology.

  • DRT

    I have largely the same thoughts as dopderbeck in #10 (that should scare him), but wish to extend it even more.

    As Fred #3 pointed out above, something like John 17:3 is relevant. I have my new handy dandy “The Kingdom New Testament” so here is how Tom puts it:

    “And by ‘the life of God’s coming age’ I mean this: that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah, the one you sent”

    So I am starting to think there are three relevant categories to this discussion. Christian, Saved and Resurrected.

    The Olson post seems to equate saved with going to be resurrected, but I don’t think that is the case. We all hope for to be resurrected…

    To put a concrete example I will use me. I grew up catholic and have always believed in Jesus. I have never not known Jesus as god. But I left the church and Christianity and pursued other religions because I had no faith in the Christian religion. At that point I feel I was a Christian, I still followed what I knew about Christ, but I was not saved, I was not participating in the Church. But, I feel I would have still been resurrected in the end.

    Now I am all three, though I would have to ask the question, what church?

  • I get the tension here, and certainly the hesitation to make comments about a particular person’s ultimate destiny.

    That said, we can speak in generalities, and I take my lead from St. Paul on this: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Period.

    If you refuse to do this, you will not be saved. As much as I want to make christology, or, indeed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed as the line in the sand with respect to God’s saving an individual, I cannot. I think that runs the risk of reducing salvation to mere assensus.

    Don’t get me wrong, however. Denying the creed means treading on some very thin ice. But adhering to a christology like that described in the above post (which appears to be little more than Jehovah’s Witness) and suggesting that Jesus ought not be worshiped, etc., I think breaks through the ice. In other words, as far as our finite ecclesial vantage point is concerned, said person is heterodox—consistently so—and thus not to be considered a Christian. Thus from an earthly perspective, I could not consider that person a brother or sister in the Christic sense (Mk 3:31–35).

    To use Olson’s categories, the bottom line, I suppose, is whether or not one can adhere to the christology described above and truly “confess Jesus Christ as Lord, risen from the dead, put his or her trust in him for their salvation, and have…a life of devotion to Jesus Christ.” Does holding the former necessarily entail denying the latter?

  • dopderbeck

    DRT (#11) — everyone will be raised and judged (Rev. 20:12-15)!

    Chris (#12) — Yes, I mostly agree, but interesting question: if Rom. 10:9 offers assurance of salvation (and I think it does), is it also correct to infer that it is also offering a blanket threat of perdition? Or is Paul’s primary purpose here to assure the gentile Christians that they are indeed saved even though they are not Jews?

    Remember, we’re left with all those thorny exegetical and theological questions about exactly what Paul means in Rom. 9-11 about the problem of Israel’s rejection of Christ, the permanence of the Davidic covenant, and the salvation of “all Israel. IMHO, but of course this is quite contested, Paul’s “all Israel will be saved” (1:26) seems also to include eschatologically the branches over which Paul is agonizing here (those who haven’t in Paul’s time recognized Christ). In other words, just citing Rom. 10:9 by itself isn’t enough because it raises a huge can of worms over the issue of supercessionism and the relationship between the Church and the Jews.

    But all that said — yes, I agree, confession of the Lordship of Christ throughout the NT is the fundamental mark of who is properly considered part of the Church.

  • I think we all trust God better than we believe (our theology). All of us are heretics as far as believing goes (i.e. we all hold mistaken ideas about God, God’s will, and God’s way in the world). So, yes, it seems possible that we can be less than or even no-Christian in our believing and yet still trust God (be saved) and we can be Christian in our believing (theology) and not be saved.

    The church (more or less )universal seems to have agreed that identifiably Christian movements and teaching will embrace the mysteries of the incarnation of the Son of God and the triune identity of God (in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds). Movements or ideas in contrast or contradiction of these mysteries cannot fairly be called Christian. Yet those holding these less than or non-Christian ideas may yet trust God more truly than they believe.

    Thus the former pentecostal mentioned in the article can not fairly claim or be considered Christian and his teaching and movement must be responded to in the name of genuine Christianity. Yet whether or not this person truly trusts the living and true God cannot and should not be presumed either way by us. And either way our responsibility to this person is to continue to reach out to them in the name and with the love of Jesus Christ.

    At least that’s how I see it.


  • T

    My issue with his discussion of the issue (and he is typical of evangelicals in this) is essentially that (i) the NT poses this same “how can I know if someone knows Jesus or has ‘faith’ in Christ?” question in lots of places, (ii) deals with it pretty consistently, but (iii), we don’t generally answer the same way. Most of the NT answers focus more on the fruit of someone’s life, but also point to some minimal doctrinal confessions, namely, that Jesus, who came, died and rose in the flesh, is Lord. We tend to answer the question much more weighted toward doctrinal confessions (ever-growing list of “orthodox” tenets), while the NT seemingly requires relatively few key facts about Jesus, and focuses on the fruit/love/results of our supposed “knowing” (orthopraxy).

    James (and John, and Jesus, and even Paul) make it clear that right confession (of Jesus as ‘Lord’) that’s followed by loveless living doesn’t “save.” A knowledge of Jesus that loves saves. A faith in him that works (like him) saves. A faith or “knowledge” that doesn’t love like him doesn’t save. The issue, according to the collective witness of the NT, is whether someone trusts that basic knowledge of Christ’s story (the gospel) enough to live it out, as a general rule, in love/obedience/new life. To ask if someone is a “little Christ” (which to me is a descriptive matter of Christlikeness) or even to ask if they have “eternal life” is to ask if they enjoy fruitful intimacy with him, which includes both (i) knowing/trusting/confessing at least the most basic of facts about him (the gospel): that he lived, died, and rose in the flesh, as Lord of all and (ii) and (therefore/thereby) living as he taught/modeled. At least that’s the basic test that Jesus himself gives, that Paul gives, that James gives, that John gives. Further, being in Christ is the only sure ground for salvation through him. Perhaps God will be surprisingly merciful and ultimately save those who are not very fruitfully intimate with him or are only so in very limited ways and/or degrees, too limited for human observation or knowledge. That will be his job; praise the Lord. But, my 2 cents is that we need to be more minimalistic on orthodoxy, and more concerned about orthopraxy, mainly because that’s the concern I see in the NT. We know in part, but our limited and even flawed knowledge of Christ should be fruitful; it should fill us with his Holy Spirit and his fruit, especially love.

  • DRT

    dopderbeck, yes, Resurrected and not subjected to ECT is probably a better category for the third.

  • doperdeck (#13): Good reminders.

    The specter of supercessionism notwithstanding, I take the sense of “all Israel” to be all those—Jew and Gentile—who come to embody Rom 10:9. If I’m reading you rightly, I think you’d agree.

    And I think the answer to your opening question is yes/yes. Judgment can be inferred, and, yes, it’s [Rom 10:9] said (yet again) to drive home the point that through Torah no one can be demarcated as one of God’s elect; rather, it’s through faith in and the faithfulness of God’s Messiah, etc., etc. I gather St. Paul writes this as much for the onlooking Jews in Rome as for the majority Gentile Christians there.

  • BradK

    A Christian is one who follows Christ. I’m not sure how much orthodoxy is required to do that. Jesus did not seem to require a lot of orthodoxy from his immediate followers, not did he seem to require or promote doctrines or professions of faith. His litmus test seemed to be based on what some might consider works in that he said “you will know them by their fruit” and “by this all will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.” He clearly did not say “you will know them by their doctrine” or “by this all men will know you are my disciples, that you are orthodox in your beliefs.” This doesn’t mean that doctrine or orthodoxy is worthless. Maybe I’m just not willing to exclude people based on some of the doctrines that some consider absolutely essential. T (#15) is absolutely right about our distorted focus on orthodoxy over (or to the exclusion of) orthopraxy.

  • I believe that the assurance of the believer refers precisely to the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Romans 8:15-17 That’s not a pronouncement from the outside of a person, but from God’s Spirit communicating with the individual’s spirit.

    I read Dr. Olson’s post a couple of days ago – it really gave me a new twist to think about. I think it explains a lot! For one thing, it tells us how to handle the souls of the many who came before the time of Christ. Saved? Maybe yes. Christian? No. It also leaves room for the lack of salvation of those who are religious (and self-righteous) who are sooooo sure they are saved (but don’t live it in any way.)

  • “What” makes a person saved, is really a “who”, right!? The promised Spirit brings life. Whoever has the Spirit has Life. But may not have orthodoxy.

    I like #2 Paul’s thought. Being a follower of the Way, in the company of the community on the Way, is why we were first called “christians”.

    I love orthodox theology. I think we may have to be careful though. The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Orthodoxy was made . . .

  • Rick

    When we speak of orthodoxy, we generally mean what is found in the early creeds. With that in mind, I will have to go with what Scot recently wrote:

    “the Nicene Creed, as well as the regula fidei leading up to it, and the creeds that flowed out of Nicea, are not to be seen as exercises in theological sophistry or speculation but profoundly gospeling events. To recite the Creed for these early Christians was not to dabble in the theologically arcane but to articulate and confess – aloud and often – the gospel itself. To deny these creeds was to deny the gospel.”

  • dopderbeck

    Chris (#17) — yes, but then again, it’s not quite that simple…. Who is a paradigm of “faith” for Paul? Abraham (Galatians 3). But Abraham can’t quite be included under Rom. 10:9 as you’re reading it, because he lived before Christ. So is Abraham “saved?” Paul certainly believed so.

    I tend to think Paul means what he says in 11:26 — “all Israel” means “all Israel“. The supercessionist reading that substitutes “Church” for “Israel” here seems to me strained in the context of Paul’s entire theodicy in chapters 9-11, and in particular of the ongoing contrast between Gentiles and Jews in chapter 11 and the conclusion in 11:28-32. But, I confess, this is a highly contested (though not idiosyncratic) reading, and I don’t know how this relates to Paul’s clear understanding that the Jews must all eventually come to recognize who Jesus is. (For some scholarly work on this, see, e.g., stuff by Robert Jensen, Carl Braaten, Gavin D’Costa, George Sumner, Richard Bell, and others).

    And really, the key to the entirety of 1-11, it seems to me, is 11:33-36. That is, the full consummation of God’s plan remains a glorious mystery. Though Paul in Romans 10:9 is indeed telling all of us what we need to know — that Jesus is raised and is Lord, and that if we ally with him we are saved — I don’t think he’s exactly addressing many of the sorts of questions we might want to put to this particular text. Here’s another one, for example: what about infants who die in infancy? Clearly Romans 10:9 isn’t addressing such a circumstance; or at least I would argue it isn’t.

    All of this of course isn’t to diminish the imperative of confessing the risen Christ as Lord. It’s just to suggest that in Biblical terms the question of who is “saved” is multi-dimensional and that we should avoid broad pronouncements about precisely what Christ will do at the final judgment based on proof texts.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I like Olson’s post. It at least helps us think about whether “belief” is more important than “life.” Although I am an uneasy member of the Reformed Tradition, I always wonder about people who elevate belief above the fruits of the spirit, most of which I consider to be expressions of relationship.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • JohnM

    Randy Gabrielse #23 – Right, but is there no connection beween those fruits and one’s belief? What kind of life results from unbelief? Can any old belief result in good fruit? Also some things we should think about.

  • Paul W

    I am a bit suprized that no one touched upon Olson’s statement that as a Christian theologian he sometimes find himself needing to answer the question “Is this person a Christian?”

    Really!?! He needs to answer that question about someone, anyone? I grant that he is, in his own mind, well intentioned. Nonetheless doesn’t his stance strike anyone else as possessing an enormously inflated sense of his vocation.

  • I don’t believe you can separate being a Christian from being saved. If you’re a Christian, then you’re saved. If you’re saved then you’re a Christian. These categories, though, are of our own making. I would say that Jesus is more interested in whether you’re a disciple or not.

  • I’m finding this whole discussion a bit unnerving. I’m inclined to agree with Mark (26). How can anyone make a distinction between “Christian” and “saved” without bouncing it up against what they believe to be Christian or saved. As one person has pointed out, it didn’t seem that Jesus was overly concerned about orthodoxy. However he did seem concerned that people understood he was sent by God, spoke what he heard and saw based on what the Father did and said, and believing in him brought them into a correct relationship with God.

    If someone does not agree with every element of man-crafted “creed” does that disqualify them from being Christian? Has the chapter been closed on the unsolvable mystery called the trinity that apparently many seem to have solved? Do we now have a set of universal biblical truths that measures one’s level of discipleship? Have we moved from being fruit inspectors to being judges? Really?